Image search has arrived in the world of retail, with Amazon and Wayfair two brands that have adopted the technology to their mobile ecommerce platforms. It’s a technology that, whilst not new, hasn’t yet been applied widely to a retail environment – but something that every retailer needs to seriously consider very quickly.

We’ve seen this before, so what’s new?


The technology behind image search has been with us for a while. Google has had an (albeit not widely promoted) image search feature for some time, allowing users to copy an image file into the search bar in order to find similar images. A number of other brands, including Pinterest and Shutterstock have also recently embraced the concept.

But these examples are largely focused on content discovery. What we are seeing now is brands using it for the purposes of product discovery.

What Wayfair and Amazon are doing is injecting image search directly into the customer journey, and using it to facilitate very fast, very efficient product discovery.

Why are they doing this?


Whilst consumers are generally accustomed to buying many products and services online, furniture and other ‘big box’ retailers have a very specific challenge when it comes to online retail and this is where we see a clear motivation from these brands in particular.

In these sectors, consumers are still generally looking to see the hard product in the flesh. They want to see how comfy it is, whether the colour shade is just right, or whether it will fit into that tight corner.

The problem is particularly acute in home furnishings retail, where the customer decision process is much more subjective and emotional. Consumers may buy a new TV by looking at reviews and specification sheets, but a new sofa?

What image search allows Wayfair to do is to tap into the ‘showrooming’ that is the bane of every bricks and mortar retailer (the art of looking and asking questions in store, and then buying it later for the best price online). What this technology allows consumers to do is to walk through the showrooms, find what they like, and then find something very similar online.

The second big reason is user experience, and this is why retailers of all sectors need to take note.

Why should I care?


There are implications here for online and offline retail. For online retail, there is a clear trend for the camera, rather than the keyboard, becoming a key search input device. Whilst UX design has come a long way, mobile search via the keyboard remains a clunky experience that regularly falls foul of autocorrect, and voice search isn’t discreet enough for most users outside the comfort of their own home.

Brands need to seriously think about their ‘camera strategy’ as part of their customer journey, particularly for those brands that sell products where the purchasing decision is much more based on emotional and experiential factors. If you’re still offering a clunky, flawed user experience, your consumers will move on to your more agile competitors.

For offline retailers, this is just another factor as they look to compete with the growth of online retailing and the showrooming trend. Retailers need to consider how they engage with their in-store customers across online and offline channels, and how they join up the offline-online customer journey to ensure that they are driving footfall and then converting it across all of their touchpoints.